In these weeks of self isolation and social distancing with the corona virus pandemic what one may like, in the late evening, is a television series to watch before one goes to bed. Dating from 2002, when HBO (Home Box Office) an American television network started to broadcast The Wire, such series started, it seems, to have moved from soap operas to dramas that are more like novels, some with artistic features. Perhaps, indeed now, the television series released in episodes, in something like the way that novels used to be published in the nineteenth century, has become the print-novel’s newly embodied follow-up. As Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes (2015) have shown, moreover, watching a prize-winning television series, can have the same kinds of effects as reading fiction in enabling people to increase their empathy and understanding of others (theory of mind).
So this week, and for some weeks to follow, I’ll offer suggestions with mini-reviews of some series that seem to me as good and worthwhile as many kinds of modern novel.
For this first week, I suggest Offspring, an Australian television show conceived and written by Debra Oswald with two collaborators, which started in 2010 and runs through seven seasons, with 85 episodes, available on Netflix. The main protagonist in the series is Dr Nina Proudman (played by Asher Keddie, centre-left in this picture). At the beginning she is in her early thirties, an obstetrician whose professional skills range from super-competent to absolutely brilliant. And there are lots of engaging scenes of babies being born (so much better than the frequent televisual fare of men with guns). The second protagonist is her older sister, Billie Proudman (played by Kat Stewart, top right-hand corner in the picture); very out-there, sexy, sometimes aggressive, sometimes affectionate.
Along with her professional activities, Nina, sometimes known as Nins, is usually in a bit of muddle personally. She has problems with her family (her sister Billie, her brother Jimmy, her mum, and her dad). She has friendly, and often very funny, interactions with other doctors, and with nurses, in her workplace, a hospital in Melbourne. And she falls love with people in ways that don’t quite work out.
What is special, however, about this series, is its focus is on two aspects that had not quite emerged in the Nineteenth-Century novel. One of these—the main one—is Nina’s inner thoughts, edited into the action in a perfect way, so that although they are visualized and often spoken out-loud by the actress (Asher Keddie), as an audience member one knows instantly that they are Nina’s thoughts, memories, scenes of imagination, fantasies, and not aspects of her ongoing interactions with others. If we had been able to overhear Virginia Woolf, as she time-travelled from 1925 when she published Mrs Dalloway, to the first episode of Offspring, in 2010, we might have heard her whisper: “Yes.” The second aspect is the focus, not on events, not on what goes well or badly (although good and bad events happen), but on the relationships among the characters, which emerge and evolve. Lovely.
Jessica Black & Jennifer Barnes (2015). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 423-429.
Debra Oswald, John Edwards, & Imogen Banks (2010-2017). Offspring. Network 10.
David Simon (2002). The wire. HBO Television Network.
Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.